1967 June 16

LBJ Orders No Wiretapping


In a memorandum to all executive department heads by Attorney General Ramsey Clark on this day, on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, the Justice Department banned wiretapping by federal agencies. This memo was a follow-up to an earlier memorandum, on June 30, 1965. Because LBJ’s instructions were in the form of a memorandum, however, they did not have the force of law that an Executive Order would have had.

Johnson is the only president to publicly oppose wiretapping as a basic law enforcement tool (although he always allowed for a national security exception). Title III of the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control Act authorized wiretapping for the first time in American history. Johnson signed the crime bill into law on June 19, 1968 because it contained many provisions he thought were extremely important. His signing statement, however, contained a strong statement opposing the wiretapping provision: “But the Congress, in my judgment, has taken an unwise and potentially dangerous step by sanctioning eavesdropping and wiretapping by Federal, State, and local law officials in an almost unlimited variety of situations.” 

Although he was strongly against wiretapping and invasions of privacy, Johnson was hypocritical on the subject. He did not ban wiretapping for national security purposes, and always maintained that there was a national security exception on important policy issues. Additionally, he was fully aware of FBI wiretapping of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and did not order it stopped. He also ordered FBI spying on civil rights activists at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention (August 25, 1964), which probably included wiretapping.

Read the LBJ memos: Athan Theoharis, ed., From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1991)

Learn more about LBJ and other presidents and wiretapping: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama (2012)

Read the Senate Church Committee report on the history of FBI wiretapping (pp. 271–351): http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_book3.htm

And more about the history of wiretapping: https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/aclu-history-wiretapping-new-kind-search-and-seizure

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